As someone who still entertains hope of becoming a member of Parliament one day, I’d better come clean about my own tax affairs. It’s a torrid tale, as you’d expect, but rather than wait for my political opponents to winkle the story out of me bit by bit, I thought I’d get it all out in the open.
I blame the Cub Scouts for starting me on the wrong path. As a boy of eight, I was an eager participant in bob-a-job week, which involved going from door to door on my street offering to do odd jobs. I turned all the money over to my Cub pack, but I realised I could earn extra pocket money from then on by washing cars and weeding gardens. Before long, I’d earned enough money to buy my own portable black-and-white tele-vision — about £40, if I recall. But reader, I have a confession to make: I didn’t declare that income to the taxman.
It was all downhill from there.
On a school journey to Brussels aged 14, I persuaded an older gentle-man to buy 200 More Menthols for me in duty-free and then sold them, one cigarette at a time, to my schoolmates at a 100 per cent mark-up. Did I hand over the tax I would have paid if I’d bought them in the corner shop? Did I hell. This was in spite of the fact that the bicycle shed I sold them behind at King Edward VI Comprehensive School in Totnes had been paid for by the taxpayer. Typical Tory hypocrite, eh? Profiting from the infrastructure built with the taxes of hard-working families while not paying any tax myself!
When I was 26, my father gave me £20,000 to put down as a deposit on a flat in Shepherd’s Bush and — a shocking dereliction of duty, this — I didn’t inquire where the money had come from. Had I realised a career in politics beckoned, I would have demanded he account for every penny and if any of it had been funnelled through an offshore trust I would have denounced him in Pravda –– I mean, the Guardian.
I’m on safer ground when it comes to the estate he left when he died because it consisted of a small house in the South of France worth £140,000. Half of it had to be divided between five children — that was the half my mother left to him when she died and those were her wishes — and the other half between six children, because he’d remarried since my mother’s death and had a daughter. That meant I was entitled to 11/60ths of £140,000 — or would have been if another, French, will hadn’t turned up. After the house was sold, the lion’s share of the money went on paying the English and French lawyers to sort this out. I think it’s safe to say he didn’t engage in careful tax planning.
That’s the big stuff, but there’s plenty of small stuff, too. At various points in my career I have diverted some of my income into a pension pot, thereby avoiding paying income tax on the diverted portion. A mealy- mouthed Tory might try to justify this by pointing out it was in keeping with the intentions of whichever Chancellor created this tax break, but I realise that won’t cut it. In our new transparent age, anyone who doesn’t arrange their affairs so as to enable the Inland Revenue to put the largest possible shovel into his stores — to quote Lord Clyde — is a loathsome tax dodger.
Then there were the numerous occasions when, the day before fuel duty went up, I made a special trip to the local garage. An honest Labour man would have put in just that amount he knew he would use before the rise took effect, but not a Tory toff like me. I ordered the cowering petrol pump attendant to ‘fill ’er up’ and, by heaven, if he refused to tug his forelock afterwards he didn’t get a tip.
Finally, there’s the Apple Watch I bought my wife as an anniversary present. Had I got it from the Apple Store it would have cost £259, but because I bought it in duty-free at Heathrow it cost only £233. That’s £26 I cheated out of HMRC.
Reading this back, I realise a wrong ’un like me has no place in our public life. Forget running for Parliament. I will spend the rest of my days atoning for my sins. I wonder if there are any openings at Toynbee Hall?
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.